Answer to Map #67

Click here for a full-size version of this week’s map.

Back to this week’s maps and hints.

Answer: This week’s map was a choropleth depicting percentage of residents in each county of the United States who speak French at home.

The data used to make this map came from the American Community Survey. On our map, the darkest shade of purple indicates counties where more than 12% of the population speaks French at home. The second darkest shade is for counties with more than 6% French speakers, the third darkest shade for counties with more than 3%, and so on.

The 23 counties with the most French speakers are distributed across only four states: Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. In general, the counties in these states with the highest concentrations of French speakers have relatively small populations.

In Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, the counties with the most French speakers are toward the north, close to those states’ borders with Quebec and New Brunswick. Many people move back and forth across the U.S. border with Canada, and these are parts of Canada with substantial Francophone populations. The official language of Quebec is French, while New Brunswick is officially bilingual. These are the only two provinces where French has official status at the provincial level.

The Francophone population of Louisiana also exists because of a connection to Canada, though that connection is somewhat more complicated. In the 1760s, many French speakers from the Maritime Provinces of Canada were expelled from that region in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. This region was known as Acadia. Since France remained the colonial power in charge of Louisiana, many people who left Acadia relocated to Louisiana. The term “Cajun,” which is often used to describe the descendants of these settlers, derives from the word “Acadian.” The Acadians mostly settled in southern parts of Louisiana. Their language and culture have survived to the present day, as is clearly visible on this map (though of course today nearly everybody in the region speaks English as well).

Cajun French, also called Louisiana Regional French, is a dialect of French that has many of its own words and phrases. In recent decades, modern technology has brought Cajun speakers into much more frequent contact with speakers of standard French. Plus, standard French is commonly taught in schools in Cajun parts of Louisiana. As a result, the Cajun language, which had diverged from standard French over the course of several hundred years, is now being directly influenced by standard French once again. If you’re interested in linguistics, southern Louisiana is a fascinating place to study!

While the Census Bureau includes the Cajun dialect in its definition of French, it explicitly excludes Haitian Creole, another language that derived from French. Instead, the Census Bureau has a separate category for speakers of Creole. The U.S. has large Haitian immigrant communities in several major cities, including many cities in Florida. If we were to lump Creole in with French, the pattern on our map would look quite different. Instead of the clear pattern we get where only a few counties stand out, we would have much more purple all over the map.

It’s important to remember that “the percentage of people who speak French” is not the same as “the number of people who speak French.” Many people were imprecise this week about this distinction. We generally use choropleths to map percentages and ratios, not absolute numbers. In fact, the U.S. county with the largest population of native French speakers isn’t in Louisiana, Maine, or New Hampshire. It’s New York County, New York—that is to say, the island of Manhattan. The Census Bureau’s most recent estimate was that Manhattan is home to 36,436 people who speak French at home. Of course, since Manhattan has a huge population, this works out to only about 2.4% of the population. The northern parts of Manhattan are home to large communities of immigrants from Francophone West Africa, especially Senegal.

Manhattan’s French speakers of Senegalese origin are a useful reminder that, in our postcolonial world, one need not be of French ancestry to speak French. In fact, there are far more French speakers in Africa than there are in Europe. This week, a fair number of people guessed that the map showed Americans of French ancestry. We did not give credit for this answer, since ancestry and language are not the same thing. In fact, a very large number of Americans all over the U.S. have some French ancestry, but most such families haven’t spoken French for many generations.

Finally, we have to say a few words about this week’s most common incorrect submission. A remarkable number of people guessed that the map had to do with production of shellfish. It is true that one thing Maine and Louisiana have in common is that each is known for a particular crustacean—lobster in Maine and crayfish in Louisiana—but these are not by any means the only states in which seafood is an important part of the economy. Alaska, for example, is the heart of the American crab industry. The guesses about shellfish seem to be a case of people looking only at the bits of the map that stood out without paying attention to the pattern of the entire map. Remember: look at the whole map!

Next map: Click here to try out our newest map question.